Whispers of the Past at the Cemetery

The Hanover cemetery.

The Hanover cemetery.

The Rev. John Maltby was born in 1727 in New Haven, Connecticut. After graduating from Yale College in 1747, Maltby became a renowned and well-traveled minister, spending a number of years at churches in Bermuda and other British colonies in the West Indies.

When Maltby’s father passed in his early childhood years, his mother, Sarah Maltby, wed Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, who would become founder and first president of Dartmouth College. Wheelock grew fond of his stepson, and over time, he began to regard him as he would his biological children.

Maltby passed unexpectedly in 1771. Had he stayed alive longer, many believe he would have succeeded his stepfather and become the second president of the College. Wheelock, saddened by Maltby’s death, set aside an acre adjacent to the new college for his burial and others’. That plot would soon become the College Cemetery. The burial ground now covers four acres and houses 1,200 deceased, most of whom were Hanover residents or had some affiliation of the college.

The character of the Dartmouth Cemetery changed rapidly throughout its early years. One example of its remarkable lack of uniformity can be seen in the style and composition of the headstones, which changed substantially over time. For the first two decades of the cemetery’s history, the stones were made of low-quality slabs quarried in East Lebanon. Most of the earliest stones were horizontal, are now defaced and largely illegible, and many have been replaced.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the durability of the stones drastically improved, as they were then produced from materials of far higher quality in Vermont. Most headstones from this era followed a strikingly similar format. Each would begin with a motto or text in Latin, followed by a statement of facts about the person interred, including his birth and death dates, occupation, familial relationships, and occasionally even the cause of death. At the bottom of the markers would be four to six original verses of text, which would often fit into the theme presented by the Latin motto or the cause of death. Junior Spaulding’s tomb, one of the few from the era that remains entirely legible, is particularly emblematic of this style:

Omnium aetatum certum est terminus
Consecrated by the United Fraternity to the memory of Oliver Spaulding
Drowned
In the Connecticut River
A.D. 1807, July 29th
With social affection and virtuous mind by genius, by science refined, Our Spaulding in rare combination did blend
The man, the philosopher, poet, and friend.

Headstones designed under this convention have the tendency to bring the dead to life, and they often evoke emotions in viewers with no connection to or even prior knowledge of the deceased. In more recent years, headstones have come to include little more than the statement of facts, often just containing a last name and the years of birth and death, and in some cases only the name. While the gradual omission of the cause of death is not difficult to understand, why the headstones simplified over time is a puzzling question. The change could theoretically be due to the overburdening effect of population growth in the mid-nineteenth century, or the fact that increasing travel during that era weakened the intimacy of communities.

The mix of people lying under these headstones is quite eclectic. The College Cemetery is not unique in that it is simultaneously a celebration of incredible lives and a memorial to horrifying tragedy. It houses eight former presidents of the college, five former treasurers, and at least ten trustees, including the namesakes of the Ripley, Woodward, Smith, and Gile residence halls. Among them lies Hiram Hitchcock, a prosperous hotelier and legislator who funded the Dartmouth Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in his wife’s name. A handful of former Hanover Town officers and other New Hampshire political figures are also buried at the cemetery.

Yet the grounds are also home to many that have suffered gruesome or untimely deaths. In the early nineteenth century, eight infants were buried in a span of three years; an alarming number considering the population of Hanover and the size of the College at the time. In a section that has come to be known as “Students’ Row”, ten early students of the College are buried under small, near-identical markers. Their causes of death ranged from “consumption” (an old term for tuberculosis) to drowning in the Connecticut River. The cemetery also houses Dick Hall ‘27, after whom Dick’s House is named, who died of polio while he was a sophomore at the College.

Unsurprisingly, many large families also inhabit the College Cemetery, the largest of which belongs to Nathan Lord, who was President of the College from the 1820s through the first half of the American Civil War. Lord and 18 of his family members, including his grandson John King Lord, who served as Acting President of the College for a year in the 1890s, are buried under a single monolithic marker, one of the tallest monuments in the cemetery. The extended family of Supreme Court justice Salmon P. Chase ’26, including two past treasurers of the College, is also interred at the cemetery. The fortunes of the interred families also drastically differ from one another. The six buried members of Bridgewater family lived for over 500 combined years, while 14 of the 17 buried members of another Dartmouth family did not live past age 24.

The cemetery’s scenic surroundings and accessible location in the middle of Hanover suggests that it would be an ideal resting place. For a burial ground disproportionally comprised of men and women that died long ago, a considerable amount of flowers, tokens, and various commemorative items lie next to the interred. Many of the items have been left by descendants of the deceased, while others are given by various organizations, an example being the small bronze tokens that have been placed next to each interred United States Army veteran. On a warm spring or summer day, it is not uncommon to see a sizeable number of viewers strolling through the grounds.

However, the cemetery’s desirable qualities have been often overshadowed by improper care, vandalism, and other forms of disrespect. Up until the year 1845, few measures were undertaken to maintain and improve the grounds, ultimately leading to the formation of the Dartmouth Cemetery Association. To extend what had become a very crowded cemetery, the association built terraces into the sides of deep ravines, and split the grounds into two large parcels, connected by a footbridge. For a number of decades, the association did adequate work, but a lack of funding ultimately rendered them ineffective. The association dissolved in 1943, and the Town of Hanover was charged with the upkeep of the grounds.

Over time, and particularly in the past few decades, the cemetery has regrettably become a popular spot for recreation and alcohol infused partying. A 1979 issue of The Daily Dartmouth shows a picture of a group of students casually sunbathing among the dead, even resting their backs upon some of the tombs. The students, who as the accompanying article suggests were kicked out of the cemetery by Safety and Security, offered some troubling remarks in response to their eviction. Becky Nyren’s ’81 comment suggested that lounging in the cemetery was a common practice: “I don’t believe it, this is horrible. It’s a tradition.” Perhaps even more troubling were the remarks of Alyson Pytte ’82: “How can they turn us out? Where will we go? We’ll have to lie in the gutter. I thought that was the whole purpose of a graveyard – lying quietly and not being disturbed”. While not illegal, most would agree that grave-bathing is a distasteful practice, to say the least.

Yet the disrespectful sunbathers are a far cry from the worst offenders in the cemetery’s nearly 250-year history. Vandalism has occurred in many incidences since the 1990’s, but no period saw a higher concentration of destruction than that decade. In the earlier part of the ten-year span, an assignment in an Introduction to Classical Archeology class called for students to analyze a few headstones of their choice. One eager female student elected to bring a few of these headstones back to her room, and was met with severe disciplinary measures by the College as a result.

In June, 1994, the Hanover police reported that 18 graves were knocked over during an apparent party (beer cans were littered throughout the site of the carnage). Among the damaged graves were some of those of the family of Francis Brown, the College’s third president. Another incident occurred in 1995, when six gravestones were knocked over a few days before Halloween. Perhaps the most destructive instance of vandalism took place in 1998, when over 50 stones were chipped, cracked, or knocked over. Damaging a headstone in any way carries a class B felony, but to this day, none of the aforementioned vandals have been caught by police.

Recognizing all the challenges it has faced over the years, we should be thankful that the cemetery remains open and well kept today. It is hard to know what weighed on Eleazar Wheelock’s mind when he buried his favorite stepson in the middle of campus. Perhaps he would have foreseen a place that people would visit and take notice of for centuries after him and his loved ones were gone. A deeply religious man, perhaps he envisioned an eternal Dartmouth community. Regardless, it is unlikely that Reverend Wheelock would have anticipated the disrespect with which many have treated his eternal resting place. We can only hope that the interest of a few reverent students and the tributes left by descendants, servicemen, and others are enough to soothe his soul.